The Natural GEORGE PLIMPTON 1927-2003 A singular man of letters, he pushed the limits of journalism and helped define sport in the 20th century even as he elevated it

Oct. 06, 2003
Oct. 06, 2003

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Oct. 6, 2003


The Natural GEORGE PLIMPTON 1927-2003 A singular man of letters, he pushed the limits of journalism and helped define sport in the 20th century even as he elevated it

He was not born in the woods to be scared by an owl.
--Epigraph, Shadow Box, 1977

This is an article from the Oct. 6, 2003 issue Original Layout

From its first issue, in 1954, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED kept careful
record of its freelance writing assignments on four-by-nine-inch
index cards noting subject, deadline and fee. The most
extraordinary stack of these cards belongs to George Plimpton,
who died last week at the age of 76, leaving a hole in numerous
lives and a deep legacy at the magazine.

Plimpton began contributing to SI in 1956 with a four-part series
on the patrician Harold S. Vanderbilt and the America's Cup. That
was three years after George cofounded and began editing The
Paris Review, the literary magazine that was his spiritual
hideout for 50 years, even as his singular and eclectic career as
a man of both letters and sport played out in the pages of SI.

In the fall of '58, with something quite unusual on his mind,
Plimpton visited SI's first managing editor, Sid James, and
shared what James recognized as "a great idea." A group of major
league baseball players were staging an unofficial postseason
all-star game at Yankee Stadium in a few weeks, and Plimpton
thought he could write an interesting article on what it was like
to participate--pitching to, say, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.
At a pregame exhibition he would face all the starters on both
the National and the American League squads. The problem was, how
could it be arranged?

In those days the most influential man in sports was arguably
Toots Shor, whose restaurant was only a few blocks from the SI
offices. James led an expedition there and bought drinks as he
and Plimpton explained the idea to the man himself. Shor said the
solution was simple: Offer $1,000 to the winning team. By evening
came word that Plimpton's pitching exhibition was on. Whereupon
Shor pulled him aside with a question: "You gonna box too?"

George smiled. The saloonkeeper understood that Plimpton was
building on the work of one of his sportswriting heroes, Paul
Gallico, who had spent a round in the ring with heavyweight
champion Jack Dempsey back in 1922. But what Plimpton had in mind
was more complicated than just looking for "the feel," as Gallico
had put it. George wanted to share the secrets that were kept at
the highest level of athletic competition--the ones he believed
you could get to only in a huddle or a conference on the mound.

On game day at Yankee Stadium the public-address announcer
bungled Plimpton's name, calling him George Prufrock, an irony
not lost on T.S. Eliot scholar Plimpton. It was agreed that
George would be a facsimile batting practice pitcher and that the
hitters could wait for their perfect pitch. George got Mays to
pop up, but many of the hitters were making him throw a dozen or
so pitches--Ernie Banks let 22 go by--and after nine National
Leaguers had batted, George called timeout. He could no longer
lift his arm.

The resulting SI story was turned into the book Out of My League.
Ernest Hemingway wired George from the Mayo Clinic, where he was
being treated for depression, that it was "beautifully observed
and incredibly conceived [with] the chilling quality of a true
nightmare ... the dark side of the moon of Walter Mitty."

Thus began George's amateur forays into professional sports for
SI: Going three rounds and having his nose slightly "collapsed"
by light heavyweight champion Archie Moore at Stillman's Gym in
1959; going to training camp with the Detroit Lions in 1963. (His
SI account became both a book and a movie, Paper Lion, about "a
36-year-old free-agent quarterback out of Harvard.")

In reviewing these and numerous other works that followed,
approving critics continued to draw on the Walter Mitty analogy,
which had a surface truth, but overlooked the fact that in
Mitty's daydreams he always succeeded, while in George's
real-life adventures he always failed. But this truth--that his
work had more to do with Everyman than Mitty--was always obscured
by George's sophisticated but self-deprecating prose, which made
him so easy and often hilarious to read. Likewise, far from being
wholly unsuited for the sports he dove into, George was a
graceful natural athlete who otherwise would never have succeeded
in his failures, so to speak. He was a strong tennis player and
could throw any ball he ever picked up: "It was the first
instrument of superiority I found myself owning," he once said.

He was also a physical presence, 6'4" and lean, and blessed with
infectious energy and great physical courage. (George helped
wrestle the gun from Sirhan Sirhan's hand moments after Sirhan
shot Senator Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles in 1968.) These
gifts served him well as a participatory journalist--a label he
characterized as "that ugly descriptive"--and took him from
tennis with Pancho Gonzalez to the NBA with the Celtics and golf
with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus to high-flying on a trapeze
with the Flying Apollos. Adventure after adventure he described
elegantly in nearly three dozen books but not at the expense of
the most eccentric of notions, like finding out what it was like
to mouth-catch a grape dropped from the top of Trump Tower.

For April Fool's Day 1985, at the prompting of then SI managing
editor Mark Mulvoy, George concocted the Buddhist pitcher, Sidd
Finch, he of the 168-mile-an-hour fastball. Finch was said to be
under wraps at the Mets' training camp, and the club went along,
helping to stage bogus photographs. Everybody fell for it. When
the prank was exposed (it had been signaled in the piece's
subhead), bumper stickers appeared proclaiming SIDD FINCH LIVES,
and The Curious Case of Sidd Finch was published as a novel in

The preposterous Finch was made almost credible by George's
reputation and accomplishments as a literary journalist and
editor, and his travels with figures as diverse as Hemingway,
Muhammad Ali and Bobby Kennedy. He wrote about scientists and
poets and presidents and condors. George knew everybody: Sinatra,
Mailer, Hef, Warren, Jackie and, that's right, Elvis too. And no
matter who you were, if you were with him or even just at the
same party, his manners always pulled you in, as good manners
always do, making you feel comfortable and in on at least some of
the secrets.

The world will be different without George Plimpton, less fun.
Which is clear from what I have already left out: the movies, the
fireworks, the expeditions. Or this: It was dusk, and we were
taking a walk on a ranch road in eastern New Mexico. Actually, we
were birding--on the trail of the elusive burrowing owl that
lives in prairie dog holes--but we were going about it in that
deeply civilized way that allows you to bring your glass of wine
along on your after-dinner expedition. We had seen no owls, but
George had pointed out a bat or two when suddenly he was pulling
his shirt over his head and flinging it in the air. What happened
next was that the shirt, peaking at perhaps 25 feet, drew at
least a half-dozen bats, which tracked it to the ground like dive
bombers, squeaking their shrill bat squeaks. A second throw
seemed to double the number of bats. And so on until the light
was completely gone.

The trick, George explained, pulling the T-shirt back on, was to
give the bats something that would come fluttering up on their
sonar as potential food--like a gargantuan moth. "These bats are
Tadarida brasiliensis mexicana," George said. "Mexican
free-taileds to you." How did he know? When he was 12 George had
had a very good time hunting bats and donating the "specimen
skins" to museums. And it was almost predictable of him to pull
something like bat expertise out of nowhere. With George, you
always got something like that. Did you know that Camus played
goal for the Oran Football Club but was never moved to write
about it?

Last year George was made a chevalier, the highest rank in
France's Legion of Honor--a token of which he loved to wear in
his lapel to test the alertness of new French restaurants--and
was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. All
the glamour and gravitas that earned him those honors rubbed off
on SI, where for almost 50 years he charmed staffers, befriended
writers and dedicated books to his various managing editors. The
day before he died George closed the 50th anniversary issue of
The Paris Review, and we had spoken that afternoon about how he
might contribute to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's 50th Anniversary. As
always, he had numerous ideas.

With his passing SI loses a very good friend, and I lose my best.
And it is not at all surprising to me that so many others out
there feel the same way.

B/W PHOTO: GARRY WINOGRAND (BASEBALL) ALLTIME AMATEUR From left: Bushed leaguer after facing Mays; jabbing Moore; with Lion Joe Schmidt; at Pebble Beach; with Gonzalez; Celtics hoopful; uneasy rider; drum role; daring middle-aged man on the flying trapeze; fictional fireballerFinch.B/W PHOTO: HERB SCHARFMAN (BOXING) [See caption above]B/W PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. (FOOTBALL) [See caption above]B/W PHOTO: RUSS HALFORD (GOLF) [See caption above]B/W PHOTO: KEN HEYMAN/WOODFIN CAMP & ASSOCIATES (TENNIS) [See caption above]B/W PHOTO: DICK RAPHAEL (BASKETBALL) [See caption above]B/W PHOTO: AP (RACING) [See caption above]B/W PHOTO: ROBERT GOMEL/TIME LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES (SYMPHONY) [See caption above]B/W PHOTO: (c)JILL KREMENTZ (CIRCUS) [See caption above]B/W PHOTO: LANE STEWART (FINCH) [See caption above]